While 2020 is probably not going down in the history books as a great year overall, there have been some bright notes when it comes to movies, art, and pop culture. Here is a list of 10 things from different mediums from the first half of 2020 that I recommend!
I never got around to reviewing Onward, but if I had known at the time it was going to be the last movie I would get to see in theatres for a long time, I may have. Outside the strange nostalgia this movie now holds for me, it is a solid Pixar flick, full of the studio’s characteristic charm, creativity, and excellent writing. It’s got some of the best visual gags I’ve ever seen and is laugh-out-loud funny in parts. The film stylistically feels less like Pixar and more like Dreamworks, but the story- and the gut-wrenching twist ending- is very much in line with the studio that can always make us cry. And here, it’s earned, pivoting from a more conventional story about fathers to one that celebrates people who step into the place of our parents in their absence, like friends, mentors, helpful strangers, and siblings.
Watch every movie by the Dardennes brothers. End review.
I’m not kidding, but if you’ve never seen a brother by these Belgian filmmakers, Young Ahmed is as good an introduction as any into their style (The Unknown Girl is also a good start and my personal favorite.) The Dardenne’s stories are small, intimate affairs, usually only tracking one or two characters as they wrestle with a choice of some sort. In Young Ahmed, the titular Ahmed is a teenage boy who is embracing Islamic extremism, and who feels called to kill his teacher, who he sees as a traitor of the Quran.
This premise has a lot of landmines in it, but if any filmmaker has an empathetic, nonjudgmental, and deft hand, it’s the Dardennes, who allow the internal journey of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) to play out without making any moralizing or political statements. They do this by simply allowing the story to see Ahmed as who he truly is- a young man, trying to discover the truth and who to listen to, a search for identity and meaning that is universal.
While the stakes of Young Ahmed are inherently high, the tension is ratcheted up by the stripped-down style of the Dardennes. For example, the movie has little-to-no music in it, which means there are no cues given to the audience that something terrible is about to happen. Scenes can turn on a dime, but because the style is so naturalistic and observational, you never know the direction the story is going, and there are no editing tricks to foreshadow was is about to happen. Young Ahmed is, therefore, challenging and ambiguous on many levels but is all the richer an experience for it.
Like the rest of the world, I spent the first few weeks of quarantine caught up in Netflix’s unmissable tragicomedy of hubris and dysfunction, Tiger King. As an Oklahoman, the series is devastating. It feels like every time we get in the news, it’s for something bad! Why do we have to become synonymous with a figure like Joe Exotic? When will Oklahoma get some good representation? It’s a great place! But admittedly, we do have our eccentricities, and it has been fun to hear stories from friends about how they’ve met Joe Exotic or gone to his zoo, like one of my professors who, during one of our classes over Zoom, apologetically told us: “I have a confession. I went to the Tiger King zoo. My son and I touched the baby tigers. I am so ashamed.”
While I was disappointed as an Oklahoman, as a consumer of entertainment, I was delighted. Each episode ramps up to an unbelievable degree, and the payoffs are incredibly satisfying. The drama is ridiculously juicy, and the cultural impact the series made was likewise entertaining and certainly needed during the first dark days of the pandemic (in the United States). Maybe that’s what Joe can truly be proud of. He never became president or governor but he has united us through our shared astonishment.
I was thoroughly enjoying the schadenfreude of the show, all the way up to the last episode until I learned that Joe was in jail. Then suddenly, I felt numb. Sad. Guilty. I was laughing at the pain of all of these people. Sure, Joe being in jail may feel like righteous irony. But what is he going to learn in jail? Probably nothing, so there’s no redemption here. Being in jail doesn’t change any of Joe’s past sins nor will it probably change him. It doesn’t restore his and Carol’s relationship. If Carol killed her husband, we’ll never know. Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle are still on the loose. And as the final captions tell us, tigers are still endangered and none of the people we saw in the show are doing anything to save them from captivity. We can gawk at this trainwreck all we want, but what has come out of our consumption of another’s misery?
That question, of course, comes up in discussions of all types of movies, and Tiger King certainly can’t be pinned down as the one documentary out there that profits off of other people’s indignity. And, admittedly, none of my discomfort with the show means I’ll stop enjoying Here Kitty Kitty.
Better Call Saul Season 5
The smartest choice Vince Gilligan and Co. made when creating Breaking Bad prequel series Better Call Saul was to… not make it like Breaking Bad. Sure, the shows share characters and setting and symbolism by design, but in structure and tone, Better Call Saul doesn’t try to re-do the elements that make Breaking Bad great. Instead, it confidently strides in its own restrained, small-scale way. The slower pace and subtle style of BCS can be frustrating, for sure, and it has made many viewers abandon the show in earlier seasons. But in season 5 things begin paying off big-time, and your patience is more than rewarded as we continue on this unstoppable train towards corruption.
What makes season 5 stand out from the other season, besides some of its most stylistic episodes yet and spotlighting Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) as its newest charismatic villain, the series finally commits to one its most interesting twists yet- that this show is no longer about Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman. We already know how he ends up, and the psychological origins of his corruption has been explored enough. Instead, our question mark, the real antihero of the show, whose fate we don’t know and who remains a wildcard, is Kim Wexler. Actress Rhea Seehorn has worked deliberately and quietly the past few seasons, comfortably standing her ground beside Bob Odenkirk’s flashier Jimmy. But now the long-suffering intensity of Kim, and Seehorn’s performance, is breaking through and getting to shine as the tables flip and suddenly Jimmy is the one looking at Kim and wondering, who has this person become? With the sixth and final season on the horizon, that’s a question I’m invested in waiting for, along with the ever-present, “will there be any more Breaking Bad cameos???”
BoJack Horseman Season 6
I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time, I have had a secret prejudice against adult animation. I have no bases for this bias, I’ve just never seen a commercial for an adult animated show and thought it would be something I would enjoy. However, I’m here to apologize and send a message to anyone who similarly has never given adult animation a try: watch Netflix’s BoJack Horseman.
BoJack Horseman is a hard sell, and it takes about eight episodes into the first season to get going. It tells the story of fading ‘90’s sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), who is an anthropomorphic horse in a Hollywood filled with a colorful combination of human and animal characters voiced by dozens of celebrity cameos and grounded by the fantastic main cast of Arnett, Allison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins. If you get through the first few episodes and get acclimated to the world of the show, then the payoff is more than worth it.
The writing and animation is witty and clever, but it’s also surprisingly heartbreaking. BoJack Horseman offers a nuanced portrait of what it looks like to live with depression, and it handles the difficulties of all types of human relationships with sensitivity and care, and without resolving anything easily. It holds its protagonist accountable for his actions without losing empathy.
Much has been said about BoJack Horseman’s examination of celebrity, mental illness, trauma, #MeToo men, and death, and I feel that most everyone could find something or someone to relate to in the series. For me, what I was most drawn to is the way the show reminds us life is not like a sitcom or any other type of film or television narrative.
As someone who spends a lot of time invested in fictional stories, I can get caught up in believing that my life, too, must have the structure of a fictional story, with easy-to-understand motivations, conflicts that escalate into a singular climax, and problems that can be resolved with perfect closure. Like BoJack himself, I secretly wish life was more like a 22-minute sitcom, where people can get hurt but relationships are always are repaired by the end, and people can change (for the better) easily and quickly and permanently, and all loose ends are tied up by the credits. But Bojack Horseman refuses to conform to the standards of its own thirty-minute episodic format, and BoJack learns that his own life and his actions cannot move forward in a linear, progressive fashion.
In this sixth and final season of the show, BoJack makes a genuine change in his life, with a mid-season penultimate episode offering what in most shows would be a satisfactory ending for our lovable antihero. But in BoJack Horseman, no sins go unremembered, and this happy ending is swiftly followed by a full reckoning of the previous five seasons of the pain and dysfunction BoJack has caused. Being held accountable for his past actions means that we have to watch the new, genuinely productive life BoJack builds for himself get taken away, which is difficult to watch, and what it leads to is not a happy ending. But it is a uniquely restorative ending, an ending that doesn’t offer platitudes or false consolation but remains resolutely grounded in hope. The hope that we can change, the hope that we can heal, the hope that life can get better, and the hope that undergoing painful transformations will be worth it in the end.
By Lindsay Ellis
Lindsay Ellis- film critic, video essayist, podcast host, and now published author- has been one of my favorite creators/thinkers for a while now, and I’ve referenced her work a few times on this blog. She tops herself again with this Youtube video essay breaking down 2019’s monstrosity Cats. The unique take here though is that beyond dunking on Cats (which there is still plenty of), she uses the film as an opportunity to break down the history of movie musical-adaptations, how director Tom Hooper’s “realistic” styling that Academy voters love just can’t jibe with musicals, and why we love ridiculing people and things on the internet.
This picture of two penguins who lost their partners and came together to comfort one another is one of the most precious things I have ever seen. Wholesome animal content for the win!
By Matt Mikalatos
Soon after our campus shut down and we were all sent back home, a few friends and I decided to keep in touch by doing a book club of C.S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been a while since I had read the books, and suddenly escaping back into the fantasy world of my childhood sounded like a great idea.
Tor.com publishes a lot of great content, but this series of essays going through the seven Narnia books are exceptionally good. Author Matt Mikalatos has clearly done his research and approaches Lewis’s work from a place of sincere respect, with an effort to understand where Lewis was coming from and the basis of his beliefs. This means Mikalato’s criticism is made in good faith and is much more thoughtful than some of the lazier Lewis criticism out there that doesn’t make an effort to understand the context in which he wrote.
These essays are engaging and capture a vibrant conversation between Mikalatos, the text, C.S Lewis, and you. Even if you aren’t actively reading the books as you read the essays, there are still plenty of fun facts about Lewis, food for thought, and theology to be found. The three essays I recommend the most are this examination of Aslan and whether or not he is an allegory, the Green Lady and modern-day enchantment, and Sacraments in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The first two can be read without being familiar with the series.
Kanopy & Hoopla
Since the 2020 summer blockbuster season has been steamrolled by Coronavirus, this is the perfect time to go back and watch older films! My favorite place to find free films are two services that can be accessed through your library card: Kanopy and Hoopla.
Hoopla has a selection of mid-range films and smaller gems, including some where I’m not sure if they are student films or not, but are nevertheless delightful in their absurdity (see VelociPastor and Santa Jaws below). Hoopla also has e-books, comics, and music.
Kanopy is a more curated streaming service where, depending on your library, you can borrow around 6 films a month. Kanopy has a wide variety of educational programs, documentaries, foreign films, and small indies.
Both services are wonderful and it’s worth checking to see if your library offers either of them. People in Tulsa- the public library system offers Hoopla. Norman people- the Pioneer Library System offers Kanopy. Here are a few of the best films on each service to check out:
Great Films on Kanopy:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (also on Hoopla)
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
First Reformed (also on Hoopla)
The Parts You Lose (Also on Hoopla)
Room (also on Hoopla)
What We Do In The Shadows (also on Hoopla)
Memento (also on Hoopla)
Great Films on Hoopla:
Adopt a Highway
Short Term 12
Ex Machina (also on Kanopy)
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
10 Best Things of January – June 2019
10 Best Things of July – December 2019